Run Aground at Tampa Bay: A Reflection on the 2012 General Conference
May 8, 2012
The theme of worship at the 2012 General Conference was "Discipleship by the Sea." The Scripture readings and sermons were those about Jesus at the shoreline calling his disciples to follow him. This was an apt theme for a conference held on the shore of Tampa Bay.
When the conference was over, it seemed that a more fitting Scriptural reference might have been the story of the apostle Paul's shipwreck in Acts 27:1-28:10. Paul and 275 others on a ship were caught in a hurricane. After 2 weeks of terror they approached a bay, but "striking a reef, they ran aground, the bow stuck and remained unmovable, but the stern was being broken up by the force of the waves." They all survived, but the experience was harrowing.
After 2 weeks of General Conference it seemed that the good ship UMC had run aground on the shore of Tampa Bay.
The primary agenda of the conference was to adopt a new plan of organization for the church. However, the plan proposed by the Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops never got out of a legislative committee. At the last minute, an alternative plan was submitted by some members of this committee, and it was approved, only to be declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council on the afternoon of the last day of the conference. The hope of producing a new organization for the church had run aground.
At least, that was the feeling of many who were in the session, but that feeling has to be put in context. After all, the church still has a structure for fulfilling its connectional ministry, and it will even be more economical than the structure we have had. The constructive work in 4 areas of focus will continue and prosper. Creative action by congregations, districts, and annual conferences will proceed.
Nevertheless, to many delegates and bishops, the 2012 General Conference did feel like a running aground at Tampa Bay.
Many people at the conference saw the failure to approve a new structure as a breakdown in trust. There was a lack of trust in the Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table, the task forces that developed the proposals, and one another. Despite this feeling, it must be remembered that the conference did agree on a plan although it turned out to have a constitutional flaw.
We ought to pay attention to this perception of mistrust. It seemed to be a major factor in the failure to get the proposal from church leaders out of the legislative committee. A certain degree of critical evaluation of the work of leaders is healthy, but a critical spirit can devolve into a pathology of mistrust.
Facing this reality of mistrust is necessary in order to repent and to renew the life of the church.
We were praying to be open to the Spirit of God at this conference and to come out of it with both a new organization and fresh energy for our connectional ministry. Too often we assume that the Spirit ought to bless our plans on our own timetable. Could it be that the Spirit is leading us to confront the lack of trust that exists among us in the knowledge that, unless we are redeemed from it, we will not be ready for a healthy new future? As it turns out, being open to the Spirit is not a mechanical matter of approving a plan of organization, but a spriritual event of experiencing the judgment and grace of God in our relationships with God and one another.
Building trust is more than treating one another with mutual respect and love and dealing with one another openly and honestly. Trust is also built throughout the connection on the recognition that leaders are primarily interested in the truth and transmission of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord, than in merely denominational well-being. One way to convey this is to be very intentional in our speech and to use language that is not dominated by institutional cliches.
What is hopeful is that the Spirit only chastises those whom the Spirit seeks to bless.
When the storm was raging against the ship, Paul told his fellow passengers to keep up their courage, for he had faith in God. He also added, "But we will have to run aground on some island." Sometimes God's plan for us includes running aground so that we can be rescued in the future. It is not something we want or ever plan, but the Spirit who searches our hearts and lives blows where the Spirit wills for the sake of our salvation.